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Saturday, January 12, 2008

Saudi bloggers demand freedom for famous colleague

Saudi bloggers demand freedom for famous colleague

DUBAI (AFP) — Saudi bloggers are campaigning for the release of their most famous colleague, arrested last month after slamming religious extremism and demanding political reforms in the ultra-conservative Muslim kingdom.

Family and friends remain in the dark about where Fouad al-Farhan is being held and the charges against him since he was detained on December 10 by security agents at his office in the Red Sea city of Jeddah.

A smiling Farhan (which means joyful in Arabic) declares on his blog (www.alfarhan.org) that he is pursuing "freedom, dignity, justice, equality, shura (consultation) and other missing Islamic values."

He also says his endeavours are for Raghad and Khattab -- his 10-year-old daughter and five-year-old son.

Farhan's arrest was reported on Tuesday by the English-language daily Arab News, the only Saudi newspaper to have spoken about his detention.

Farhan was being held for "interrogation for violating non-security regulations," interior ministry spokesman General Mansur al-Turki told the daily.

Arab News columnist Abeer Mishkhas wrote on Thursday that this implies that Farhan's website might not be the cause of his arrest, an assumption supported by the fact that the site has not been blocked by authorities.

But she said his detention has unnerved local bloggers, for whom the blogosphere "was a breath of fresh air," offering "freedom and an unrestricted space for all voices."

"This sense of freedom is now at risk. According to some Saudi bloggers, Farhan's arrest is making them think twice before posting comments that they might get in trouble for," Mishkhas wrote.

Two weeks before his arrest, Farhan had written to friends that he expected such a move for his writings about a group of nine reformists arrested in February 2007, eight of whom remain held without trial for alleged links to terror funding.

According to the message, Farhan said he had been asked to cooperate and apologise, but that he was not sure what he was supposed to apologise for.

"Apologising because I said the government lied when it accused the reformists of supporting terrorism," he asked in the message, which was posted last week by a committee of supporters on "Free Fouad," an Internet site on which hundreds of Saudi and foreign bloggers have been demanding Farhan's release.

Calls for his release have also come from several Arab and international media rights groups, including the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (HRInfo), Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Farhan, who wrote under his real name, recently criticised 10 influential Saudi figures, including billionaire Prince Al-Walid bin Talal and judiciary chief Sheikh Saleh al-Luhaidan.

In an article titled "No to terrorism, yes to dialogue in Saudi Arabia," and posted on December 3 following the announcement that more than 200 suspected Al-Qaeda militants had been arrested, he wrote that Al-Qaeda had not been eliminated despite the calm prevailing in the oil-rich kingdom.

He also slammed "the rejection of peaceful dialogue within Saudi society."

"When you are born and raised (in a society) marked by a discourse that excludes the other ... your spirit will be a fertile ground for the ideology of violence. When a youth grows up (in an environment) that rejects the other, he will be an easy prey and a tool for advocates of violence," said Farhan, who repeatedly targeted religious extremism.

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